As Thailand moves closer to a general election, expected sometime early next year, the current junta members who came to power through a coup four years ago are concerned that they would not have much to show for peace efforts in the Muslim-majority Deep South.
The Safety Zone pilot project is pretty much the only thing they have to talk about when it comes to their legacy for this restive region that has claimed about 7,000 lives since January 2004.
There are other projects, such as Bring People Home, a half-baked amnesty program that nobody, especially the militants, takes seriously. There is also the 50-million baht (U.S. $1.5 million) civil-military program that involves giving money to local civil-society organizations (CSO) believing this will undermine local support for the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the one long-standing separatist movement that controls virtually, if not all, of the militants on the ground.
But that, too, flopped, as most longstanding CSOs in the far South shunned the offer.
Already, a local political party, Pracha Chat, is in the making and its aim is to cash in on the anti-military sentiment among the general public.
It’s hard for the Thai leaders to talk about successes and continuity because Thailand’s counterpart, the MARA Patani, has suspended the dialogue process.
The umbrella organization is made up of deep-rooted separatist movements and a handful of BRN members who do not have the support of their top leaders.
The organization suspended the talks because they felt belittled by how Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha treated the Safety Zone project when he casually told Thai reporters that a district has been selected to come under the pilot project. Safety Zone is a designated district government security forces and separatist militants are supposed to observe ceasefire.
MARA Patani considered the project to be a “breakthrough” and wanted the Bangkok government to give it the kind of respect they think it deserves. But Prayuth pulled the rug from their feet and denied them the much-needed spotlight that MARA Patani members think could have enhanced their legitimacy.
Although their technical team agreed in principle with the selection of Cho I-rong district, MARA Patani leaders continue to remain tight-lipped.
Besides denying them the limelight, Bangkok also refuses to sign the agreement on the Safety Zone pilot project, saying inking anything at this point was unnecessary because the two sides are still at confidence-building stage.
For the time being, no one can say when MARA Patani leaders will come out of their corner and resume the talks. Officially, only the Thai side has made a public announcement about Cho I-rong being designated as Safety Zone.
Prayuth made the statement to reporters in April and MARA Patani responded by suspending the talks.
The following month, the changes in Malaysia’s political landscape that saw the ouster of UMNO from power after almost 60 years, gave MARA Patani another reason to stall the talks.
Abu Hafez al-Hakim, a key member in the organization, said it was premature to predict whether the new government in Kaula Lumpur will retain Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, Malaysia’s former spy chief, as the designated facilitator.
But even if MARA Patani came around and formally endorsed Cho I-rong as the designated Safety Zone, the project is resting on a shaky ground, as it has always been.
First of all, MARA Patani doesn’t control the insurgents on the ground; it’s the BRN. Sources in the Thai government said Zamzamin had assured them last year that the BRN leadership would not sabotage the project.
Militants on the ground said they have no problem with observing the ceasefire. But as far as they are concerned, nothing has been formally designated – at least not by both sides. So far, militants in Cho I-rong said they have not received any instruction to observe any ceasefire.
Some Thai officials working on the insurgency in the far South are wondering if the BRN leadership actually made that kind of commitment to Zamzamin. Some believe Zamzamin may have exaggerated his claim.
Moreover, according to the Thai officials, Zamzamin was supposed to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Thailand’s chief negotiator Gen. Aksara Kherdphol and Doonloh Wae-mano, one of BRN’s top leaders. The venue was supposed to be in Indonesia. But that, too, hasn’t happened.
“I don’t think the BRN leaders are serious about coming to face-to-face with any Thai representatives,” said a Thai army general working in the Far South. “If a date hasn’t been set by now, the meeting won’t happen any time soon.”
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security and development consultant for international organizations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.